From Angola to KFC

Jackson Lassiter Click to read more...

Jackson Lassiter lives and writes in Washington, DC.  His work has most recently appeared in OVS Magazine, Prime Mincer, Tidal Basin Review, and DuPage Valley Review.  He is the recipient of the 2009 Larry Neal Writing Award presented by the DC Arts Council, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and was awarded a 2011 Writers in the Heartland Residency.  He is currently at work on a multi-artist, multi-media collaborative project with a scheduled gallery opening November, 2011 (Touchstone Gallery in Washington, DC).

The Spirits at Nzinga’s Feet

Twilight settles along the coast of Angola, where Nzinga has been placed at water’s edge.  A village, home for all her thirteen years, lies behind – she can sense its dying fires flickering against her bended back.  A brooding Portuguese ship looms on the dark horizon ahead.   She and the others have been traded as goods by a Mbundu king for European copperware, cloth, wine and guns.  Nzinga digs her brown feet ankle-deep into the beige sand, burying the biting shackle, prays a gentle wave washes them free.  The sand flees back to sea but the shackles remain, and Nzinga knows she won’t see home again.  If lucky, she will survive the voyage to see a distant shore that she doesn’t know and can’t imagine.  Or she might die in the dark cargo hold of the diseased ship, her soul tossed over to join the legions of slave spirits sinking through the lightless depth.

Grab and Go

Pinky, youngest daughter of the Angolan slave Nzinga, is the only Negroe in the slave pen to have been born in South Carolina.  This bestows value – she already speaks English and knows how a slave must behave.  The others, fresh Africans, were dragged blinking into the harsh sun from the dank hold of the cargo ship, the dead stink of their journey scrubbed away and their skin rubbed with tar to make them shine.  The tar burns their eyes and they fight, but Pinky knows not to resist.  The scars on her back remind her.  This is a “Grab and Go” auction, different from age six when Pinky was first ripped from Nzinga’s embrace and sold.  That one had been “Sold to the Highest Bidder”.  But that bidder has fallen on hard times and Pinky is for sale again.  For hours, she and the Africans have been prodded, had their mouths pried opened and their genitals examined.  Then with the metallic clang of a copper bell, the gate swings open and the buyers rush to claim their goods.  Two fight over Pinky, yanking at her arms, but Pinky is quiet, eyes closed, praying to her mother’s ancestral God.  He is her only respite.

Chains of Love

Elizabeth prays to her Lord Christ over her dying husband, Hiram.  Elizabeth, the light-skinned daughter of her previous owner and his house servant, had been freed by him.  So when she fell in love with Hiram, she bought him – a slave – to secure their union.  They have loved for a lifetime under South Carolina’s Black Rules, but now he dies.   Elizabeth sings a song of mourning at Hiram’s final breath rattle, and as he tumbles gently into the afterlife, he returns to ancestral memory – to the beige beaches of his great-grandmother Nzinga’s Angola, to the drums and songs and colorful garb of a people he’s never known.

Fires of Freedom

The words are whispered mouth-to-ear in hopeful, frightened silence.   A house slave overhears his master, tells a field slave who scuttles them by mule to a neighbor’s nanny.  And so on.  The news travels from Washington to Greenville like a quiet, lovely telegraph.  The night songs in the slave quarters grow louder, happier, the words spiraling upwards in the darkness like the sparks rising from the fires of Angola.  Lincoln has signed papers emancipating all, and when the Union army reaches South Carolina, freedom will be claimed.  Glory, glory be, the songs ring through the night.

1968

Hope evaporates as the news flies ‘round the world:  Martin Luther King has been shot in Memphis.  From Birmingham to Washington, Oakland to Greenville, Angola and beyond, heart and breath and home and shop all go up in flame.  The embers of equality become the fires of revolt, and neighbor watches neighbor with distrust-ringed eyes.  After the flames die down, a lingering darkness settles over all of America.  We wonder – will the dawn ever come?

Original or Extra-Crispy?

“Original or extra-crispy?  Mac-and-cheese or mashed potatoes?”  Sholanda, dressed in a shabby KFC uniform, queries the next customer in line.  Her tone is dull; there is no fire.  She tucks an unruly loc beneath the franchise-issued baseball cap.  She hates being here, but being here is as good as an uneducated girl from the ghetto can do.  Sholanda accepts her place in this life.  Sad.  She doesn’t recognize that her Angolan ancestors invented this fried chicken in the slave quarters, or that the hip hop music playing in the background is rooted in African rhythms.  She doesn’t recognize the many contributions of her people.  Poverty blinds her.  All she sees is that there ain’t no breaks for a poor girl from Greenville, even though a black man finally presides over the country.  She only knows he don’t, no one don’t, in no way, represent her.

Discussion

One Response to From Angola to KFC

  1. Tim McAleenan says:

    I really like this piece of work from Jackson Lassiter, particularly the last part titled “Original Or Extra-Crispy?” I really like the anaphora with the word “recognize” that discusses how Sholanda does not recognize the relationship between her ancestors and fried chicken, hip hop, and her roots. Lassiter does a fantastic job of highlighting the importance of “agency” to add a layer of irony to the story. Sholanda’s roots would give her a type of claim on the atmospherics of her environment–the chicken, hip hop, etc.– yet, they serve as tools to oppress her rather than liberate her because she does not command any ownership over these ancestral accoutrements. This is a great commentary on personal identity and how one’s own cultural reportoire can be turned against oneself.

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